China surpasses the West …in traffic jams

China has made great strides in overtaking the West…in a headlong rush to dystopia. From AP, Sept. 3:

Thousands of trucks stuck in China traffic jam
BEIJING — Thousands of coal trucks and other vehicles were backed up for miles on a highway in northern China on Friday, the latest in a series of monster traffic jams that have plagued the overloaded road since construction began on a parallel route earlier this summer.

Police redirected traffic and reminded drivers to stay alert in the gridlock along on the Beijing-Tibet highway, an official with the Jining district traffic police in Inner Mongolia said Friday. Like many Chinese bureaucrats, he refused to give his name.

State television broadcaster CCTV reported that about 10,000 trucks were stuck in the jam. The exact length of the gridlock was not clear, but one of the worst stretches was a 75-mile (120-kilometer) span of highway between Inner Mongolia’s Zhouzi and Xinghe counties, media reports said.

The traffic jams are part of continuing congestion along the Beijing-Tibet highway that began escalating in mid-August — fueled by road construction on the nearby Beijing-Xinjiang highway and the opening up of coal mines in the northwest.

Trucks hauling coal from regions like Inner Mongolia to industrial and urban centers on the coast are a major contributor to China’s overloaded highway system. Most of the country’s power plants are fueled by coal, vital for the booming economy that recently surpassed Japan’s in size and now second only to that of the U.S.

The latest snarl was triggered by a traffic accident on Wednesday in Hebei province adjacent to Beijing, effectively halting traffic headed east from Inner Mongolia, the Beijing News reported. Details of the accident were not clear.

The problem was further compounded by drivers who fell asleep at the wheel while waiting for traffic to move and difficulties restarting the engines of some large trucks, the report said.

A CCTV reporter arrived in the outskirts of Beijing on Friday morning after setting off from the coal-rich city of Ordos two days earlier — about a 400-mile (640-kilometer) journey. He would likely have been riding in traffic lanes reserved for passenger vehicles and traveling faster than the coal trucks making up the majority of the gridlock on the highway.

Last month, some trucks were stuck for up to five days on the Beijing-Tibet highway with drivers on the worst-hit stretches passing the time sitting in the shade of their immobilized vehicles, playing cards and sleeping on the asphalt.

The reader who forwarded us this clip wittily dubbed it “The Great Crawl Forward.” Octavio Paz warned in 1968: “Under the present circumstances the race toward development is mere haste to reach ruin.” Too bad China’s leaders didn’t listen.

See our last posts on China and the global car culture.

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  1. Techno-fix for China’s killer smog?
    China (like Iran) has been beset with a plague of killer smog; Beijing has been repeatedly hit in recent years, and Harbin is now practically shut down by a toxic haze that threatens residents’ health and has reduced visibility to around 10 meters. (Reuters, Oct. 21) Massive coal-burning with the start of heating season seems to have triggered it, but clearly traffic-choked streets are a contributing factor; emergency anti-smog measures instated in Beijing limit motorists, with private cars only allowed to enter the city on alternate days according to a ballot system based on license plate numbers. (CNN, Oct. 23) (Dust released from the expanding Gobi Desert as a result of climate change could also have something to do with it.) Now The Guardian reports that Dutch artist Daan Roosegaarde is proposing a scheme for a giant “vacuum cleaner” to suck the smog out of the sky—actually an array of underground copper coils that would attract airborne particles by generating an electrostatic field. A hubristic techno-fix that merely forestalls a reckoning with the roots of the problem in the development model. An unfortunate tendency we have noted beforemore than once.

  2. China’s killer smog: good news, bad news
    The good news is that Beijing says it will reduce the number of vehicles on the road, cutting the annual number of new cars available to registered drivers by 40%, from 240,000 a year to 150,000, over the next three years. (Shanghaist, Nov. 30) Of course the claim is actually oxymoronic, as the measure will not mean an overall decrase, but a lower rate of increase.

    On the bad news side, the official tabloid Global Times ran a seemingly serious commentary touting the “unforeseen rewards” of smog—such as hindering the use of giuded missiles against China! Utterly surreal. Fortunately, the commentary was called out as absurd in other Chinese media, including the Dongguan Times, a major newspaper in Guangdong—a testament to at least tentatively growing press freedom in the People’s Republic. (Reuters, Dec. 10)

    1. Orwellian response to China’s killer smog

      A terrifying headline in the Daily Mail of Jan. 16, with a truly chilling photograph, "China starts televising the sunrise on giant TV screens because Beijing is so clouded in smog"…

      The smog has become so thick in Beijing that the city's natural light-starved masses have begun flocking to huge digital commercial television screens across the city to observe virtual sunrises.

      The futuristic screens installed in the Chinese capital usually advertize tourist destinations, but as the season's first wave of extremely dangerous smog hit – residents donned air masks and left their homes to watch the only place where the sun would hail over the horizon that morning.

      Commuters across Beijing found themselves cloaked in a thick, gray haze on Thursday as air pollution monitors issued a severe air warning and ordered the elderly and school children to stay indoors until the quality improved.

      Shades of Soylent Green.

      1. Smog-boosters question Beijing digital sunrise claim

        Quartz runs a story today entitled "Westerners are so convinced China is a dystopian hellscape they'll share anything that confirms it," asserting:

        When it comes to China stories, people will believe almost anything. Take, for instance, the reports about pollution being so severe in Beijing that residents now watch radiant sunrises broadcast on a huge screen in Tiananmen Square.


        So, that never happened. As Tech in Asia flags, the sunrise is a clip from a tourism ad for Shandong province, in China’s northeast; it’s on screen for maybe 10 seconds or so per loop.


        But that didn’t prevent a slew of prominent media outlets—including Time, CBS News and the Huffington Post—from running the story, which originated in the UK-based Daily Mail, each taking their own liberties with the truth. The “glorious sunrise was broadcast as part of a patriotic video loop,” explained Time.

        Well, it makes no difference to us whether the clip is part of "patriotic" propaganda or commercial advertizing. And even if its ostensilbe purpose is other than to provide visual relief for smogged-in Beijingers, that doesn't mean it isn't actually serving that function. It still represents reality (in this case, the goddam sky) being replaced by a simulacrum. We don't doubt the conservative Daily Mail was taking an opportunity to gloat at China's dystopia, but pretending the dystopia isn't there is no more honest. Was the grey pea-soup of smog in the photo digitally enhanced? For us, the take-away isn't "China is uniquely evil," but: "This is humanity's future under industrial capitalism. Turn back before it's too late."

        1. More political exploitation of Beijing smog

          Too funny. The right-wing, which is the first to diss stateside environmentalists, luridly touts claims (originally aired in the Washington Post Jan. 21) that toxic pollutants from Chinese industry are blowing across the Pacific to the US West Coast. The findings were published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, and there may well be something to them. But Breitbart is clearly exploiting them for Sinophobic propaganda. 

          Alas, my recent Facebook exchanges on the Beijing smog question indiciate that this absurd double standard also infects "leftists," who are prone to dismiss any acknowledgement of China's dystopia as "Orientalism," a "Cold War mentality" or (most bizarrely) "anti-Communism."

          Despite the apparent illusions on both sides of this propaganda divide, "Communism" assuredly has nothing to do with it. Contemporary China is capitalist to the very core.

          1. More eco-Sinophobia

            The Wilson Center on its Twitter feed features a pic of a haze-shrouded Golden Gate Bridge with the caption "29% of San Francisco's particulate air pollution comes from China." Google reveals that such claims are actually made in the recent issue of the journal Environmental Science & Technology, but as the Wall Street Journal's China Real Time blog astutely asks in a parting shot from its coverage of the findings: "The question now is how much of that 29% can be attributed to San Francisco's penchant for China-made iPhones and iPads?"

      2. Beijing’s eco-dystopia challenges satirists

        OK, is this real or are we getting played again? The Telegraph (no, not The Onion) reports that an Edmonton-based company called Vitality Air is actually selling bottled fresh air from the Canadian Rockies to smog-beleaguered Bejing residents. A 7.7-liter bottle from Banff National Park goes for about 100 yuan. The account shows a woman (seemingly a commuter) in the soupy-skied Chinese capital wearing a mask connected to an air filter. The acount doesn't make clear how consumers are really helped by just a gulp or two of Rocky Mountain air…

  3. China’s smog dilemma: ‘congestion pricing’ —or back to bikes?

    Charles Komanoff of the Carbon Tax Center visited Hangzhou for an "International Forum on Economic Policies for Traffic Congestion and Tailpipe Emissions" organized by the Energy Foundation China, and reports happily that municipal authorities in various of the People's Republic mega-cities are considering "congestion pricing" plans. We aren't so happy. However, Komanoff does add this very hopeful note:

    • Bicycles, having literally been pushed aside in the rush to motorization, are now at least receiving lip service. A number of Chinese speakers extolled urban cycling's spatial economy, physical activity, and "last mile" problem-solving, and much was made of the massive scale of Hangzhou's bike-share system: 2,700 stations with nearly 70,000 bikes — an order of magnitude larger than New York City's.

    The abandoning of bicycles for cars was, not coincidentally, concomitant with the counter-revolution led by Deng Xiaoping and his "capitalist roaders." But maybe we should shut up, lest bicycle advocates in China (and without) be tarred as a bunch of fanatical totalitarian Maoists…

  4. China opens new carbon market

    "Socialism," eh? From Reuters, Dec. 19:

    Chinese Carbon Market Opens to a Busy First Day
    GUANGZHOU, China — The first day of trading in what will be by far the largest carbon market in China started briskly on Thursday with pricing in line with expectations, as Beijing continued its drive to slow its rapid growth of heat-trapping emissions.

    The first trade on the China Emissions Exchange in Guangzhou, Guangdong Province, was priced at 61 renminbi, or about $10, with the cement firm Hailuo buying 20,000 carbon permits from the new energy arm of the state-owned power producer Huadian Energy.

    Early trade volume in Guangdong’s carbon permit market, expected to be the world’s second largest in terms of carbon dioxide covered, surpassed full-day totals that started the country’s three other carbon exchanges.

    China, the world's biggest emitter of greenhouse gases, wants to use markets to achieve its target to cut emissions per unit of gross domestic product to 40 percent to 45 percent below 2005 levels by 2020 — at the lowest possible cost.

    Beijing, Shanghai and Shenzhen have already opened markets of their own; Hubei Province and the cities of Chongqing and Tianjin are expected to follow in the next few months.

  5. China cracks down on polluters?

    Bloomberg notes April 25 that China has passed its most significant overhaul of environmental protection laws in 25 years, pledging to crack down on polluters with stiffer penalties. The amended law "sets environmental protection as the country's basic policy," according to a copy posted on the government's website. But note, first, how lax enforcement has been up to now. "Previously, polluters could often pay less in fines than it cost to install and operate pollution controls, lawmakers said during discussions on the legislation, according to Xinhua," the government's own news service. Note, second, just how bad the situation has become: "The legislation was passed after the Ministry of Land and Resources said almost 60 percent of the groundwater at 4,778 sites monitored across China was of poor or extremely poor quality with excessive amount of pollutants. A nine-year government survey found unacceptable levels of mercury, arsenic and other pollutants in 16 percent of the land tested, the ministry said." And note, finally, that basic enforcement measures come only after the technocratic and very capitalistic pseudo-solution of carbon-trading schemes…

  6. Killer smog blankets central China

    Shanhaiist reports Dec. 20: "Airpocalypse smothers northern China as AQI soars above 1,000 in Hebei province." AQI refers to the Air Quality Index. Text:

    With an especially thick layer of heavy smog blanketing much of northeastern China and handing out ludicrously high air quality readings, many residents have been left dreaming of a non-grey Christmas this year.

    Smog readings have gone off the scale in parts of Hebei province. Yesterday afternoon, the amount of PM2.5 and PM10 in the air of Shijiazhuang, Hebei's capital city, exceeded 1,000 micrograms per cubic meter.

    To put that alarming milestone into perspective, the World Health Organization (WHO) says that it is dangerous for humans to breath in air with PM2.5 levels exceeding 25 micrograms per cubic meter over a period of 24 hours.

    PM2.5 refers to fine Particulate Matter with a diameter smaller than 2.5 microns.

  7. China carbon market goes national

    China has announced the launch of its long-awaited carbon market. The scheme will initially include only the power sector, covering around 3.3 Gt emissions which represents around a third of China's national emissions. It will instantly overtake Europe's carbon market as the world's biggest cap and trade system. (Carbon Market Watch, Dec. 19)